In pictures: Navy women in the world wars

A hundred years on from the formation of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) in 1917, The National Museum of the Royal Navy is hosting an exhibition celebrating women’s contribution to the naval services for the last 250 years. From Second World War Wrens to women who joined their husbands on 17th-century warships, Pioneers to Professionals: Women and the Royal Navy examines the remarkable stories of women who served their country at sea... 

Despatch riders, who worked in all weathers delivering messages and parcels to s

Here, we take a look back at the trailblazing work of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) during the First and Second World Wars, in pictures…


(National Museum of the Royal Navy)

When the First World War began in 1914, women worked as nurses, VADs and in munitions facilities as they were barred from military service. However, years of fighting prompted a change – by 1917 the navy desperately needed more sailors at sea.

The Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) was created, allowing women to work in shore-based roles, releasing more men to work on ships. Its workers quickly became known as 'Wrens'. Here, two Wrens can be seen cleaning depth charges during the First World War.

 


(National Museum of the Royal Navy)

These Wrens helped to feed the 6,000 sailors at Chatham during the First World War. Women filled a variety of posts previously held by men. They worked as cooks, waitresses, clerks, laundresses, telephonists, wireless operators, motor drivers and other technical experts in order to ‘free a man for the fleet’.


(National Museum of the Royal Navy)

WRNS personnel at Lowestoft in 1918, taking part in physical training by club swinging. The WRNS uniform included a heavy serge dress, black woollen stockings, a thick overcoat and a hat, which they had to wear in all weather. Many Wrens complained about the uniform and some even ended up in the sick bay getting treatment for rough and inflamed necks, where the hard serge material had chafed their skin.

"I shall never forget struggling home from the barracks with the rough serge coatfrock, very heavy greatcoat, heavy boots and shoes, woollen ribbed stockings and so on," recalled one Wren.


(National Museum of the Royal Navy)

In 1919, the WRNS were demobbed after just 20 months of service. When the war was over, the WRNS campaigned for a permanent service but their repeated attempts were dismissed.


(National Museum of the Royal Navy)

In 1939, under the threat of war, the Admiralty reformed the Women's Royal Naval Service. At its peak in 1944, around 74,000 women were serving in the WRNS in a huge variety of roles. Here, a group of Wrens are seen accompanied by a sentry with a rifle.


(National Museum of the Royal Navy)

This photo shows Wrens passing messages by signal lamps during the Second World War. At the beginning of the Second World War, the roles initially available to women workers were similar to those in the First World War. However, the range of tasks quickly widened and women had the opportunity to become radio and air mechanics, torpedo-women and boat's crew.


(National Museum of the Royal Navy)

Four WRNS cooks and stewards asleep in their bunks onboard ship in September 1944. Many Wrens were engaged in top secret operations during the Second World War. Some Wrens were among the many women at Bletchley Park who worked on breaking German codes and those involved in the development of plans for D-Day. Others provided vital support keeping the fleet fed, maintaining equipment and supplies or in a variety of administrative roles.
 


(National Museum of the Royal Navy)

On 1 February 1949, the Women’s Royal Naval Service became a regular force, giving women the chance to pursue a long-term career in the WRNS for the first time. This picture shows a group of WRNS officers in Malta in 1961. 

 
Pioneers to Professionals: Women and the Royal Navy is on now, at The National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. 
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